This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So we’re at the top of the hour here. This is obviously a different sort of chat for us, given Max’s passing. We would normally be talking to him about his book, but since we can’t we’re talking to his friends. So what can you tell us about Max and his work that’s stuck with you the most?
Shon L: Oy, too much! To start with Max: he mad me aware of my (and everybody’s) capacity for love in a way that I hadn’t been before I met him. His work does that too because of how present he is in it.
Kaveh Akbar: I’m sitting here in Iowa City with Justin Boening for a celebration-of-Max event tomorrow night, featuring Robyn Schiff and Gabrielle Calvocoressi and Justin and Devon and Jane Mead and many others. And these events have happened and are happening all over the country. And it strikes me as so in keeping with the spirit of Max’s work that all these people all over are meeting and laughing and celebrating because of his poems. Because of his friendship and love and light
Brian S: Thanks Shon. Is there a particular poem in Four Reincarnations that does that for you? One you can remember off the top of your head?
Camille D: Yes, that did feel like such a huge question. I just want to say that this book grabbed both Brian and me right away. When we got it from Milkweed we knew we wanted to feature it.
Shon L: Brian, I actually was just talking to Victoria about the poem “Second Dream”
Camille D: It’s the immense compassion he renders in these poems. Towards himself and the universe. That’s one of the things that strikes me most. But, technically, I am struck by how he manages to par down the language so cleanly. Can either of you talk about what you know about his strategy? I mean, did he write big and whittle down? Did he start small and build up? How long did it take him to write these individually precise and spacious but also perfectly condensed poems?
Camille D: ”Second Dream” is such a great example, Shon! He says so much with so little. But I trust there could have been more…words for some other writer.
Kaveh Akbar: ”Made me aware of my (and everyone’s) capacity for love.” That’s perfectly said, Shon. Yes yes, that.
I hold my face
in the bed.
Me: What is my future?
Shon: Flowers. You are marrying flowers.
Camille, yes—sorry I’m just having difficulty with my formatting here, so I haven’t managed to answer fully. I’m gonna try to do that in my following comment and then after that I’ll talk about Max’s process.
Ari: Max started big and then edited… Many versions of each poem. Max could have been a shrink. He has intuitive capacity to love, read and counsel people.
Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, he spoke to me of whittling down many page drafts to twenty lines, that kind of thing. I don’t know if that was his norm, but it was certainly one technique he used.
Ari: Kaveh, you have been a terrific friend to Max and an extremely valuable advocate of his work.
Justin Boening: Sorry. Late to the party. The one thing I always say about Max’s work is that it’s deeply wise at a time when it’s not really that fashionable to be wise.
Kaveh Akbar: Ari, so wonderful to see you here. I can’t wait to give you the biggest hug next week. I’ll never forget what an important and true friend Max was to me, too. He was so so good and kind to me in a rare way. And his work speaks for itself, is its own advocate!
Camille D: Ari, Kaveh, Justin, Shon, these chats become something of an online record of what the poet is doing with the books we feature. They’ve become useful to students and teachers who want inside views into contemporary poetry. What important words would you like to put on the record about Four Reincarnations?
Shon L: So re: “Second Dream.” Victoria and I were talking about the poem and I was telling her how I haven’t really been connecting to that specific poem the last few times I read it. And Victoria reminded me, as Max would have, that the poem is a record of a moment of love. And specifically it’s a record of the capacity for language and imagination to reshape something like death (into marrying flowers), and this reshaping is an act of love. It transforms the unknown into the stage for a play improvised by the two people who love each other. In the case of the subject of this poem it was literally me and Max, and I’m the one making imaginative/transformative love-leap. But Max is the person who helped me learn how to do that, and it’s the kind of thing Max himself would do all the time.
Camille D: Justin, I’d like to follow up on what you said: “Max’s work is that it’s deeply wise at a time when it’s not really that fashionable to be wise.” I do think his work is wise. That’s part of the compassion I speak of, but also part of the incisive nature of the work. How do you think he manages wisdom without sounding officious (which he absolutely does not) or holier than thou or any of the other pitfalls of overtly wise poetry. He doesn’t fall into those pitfalls, and it’s not just because he makes us care about him so quickly, though that’s part of how he pulls it off.
Ari: Four Reincarnations is a book about the development of life, love, illness, death and its meaning. The first reincarnation deals with the development of neurosis and is about life . The second is about a breakup and carried both the pain and humor of such breakup. The third is about love in the face of illness (cancer) and the fourth is about the world beyond.
Kaveh Akbar: I think it’s a celebration. I think the poems are interested first and foremost in delighting the reader—by sound, by surprise, by wit. I think the great achievement of the book is that the poems are so consistently surprising, so full of delight, even while addressing the terrible injustice of Max’s station. They’re not poems of despair. Max and I talked about how the poems were almost like little wills, little love notes to his beloveds.
Brian S: Yeah, I was just looking again at “Appeal to My First Love” which ends with the line “Adore me to sleep before sleep can adore me on its own terms.” That’s a line that could have so easily gone bad and yet it didn’t.
Ari: It is a book that can teach us how to laugh when we want to cry and how to cry when we least expect it… It’s a book that teaches us how to live and love well and without reservation no matter what hand you were dealt. Despite cancer, despite fear, despite pain, despite the evils of the mind and a broken body, there is a world beyond where life and live triumphs and persists long after we depart
Brian S: And maybe that’s because the line before it is “Come back, this cereal is gross, these cartoons are whiny.” And both are set off in white space by themselves, so you have to take them in their individual contexts.
Justin Boening: That’s an excellent question, Camille. Max’s work never comes across as officious, or didactic (though I’ve certainly learned from it) for a number of reasons. One way is that, throughout the book, there’s a remarkably plain diction, similar to Gluck in that way. Another aspect of the work though is the humor, the self-deprecation, that manages, even in the face of Max’s real suffering, to never smack of self-pity.
Lastly though, and this is something that others have noted, is that the essence of the book, the real spirit of it, is a desire for love and unity, and it’s a desire that’s articulated not as a demand on the audience but through it’s radically empathic example.
Kaveh Akbar: Brian, that’s a line I steal in a for-Max poem (which Max dug!). That’s such an important line for me in this book, the “adore me to sleep” one.
Justin Boening: I want to second, too, what Kaveh just said about how delightful the poems are—there’s a generosity in it’s willingness to delight, and a wisdom in that generosity.
Brian S: Kaveh, It’s a line worth stealing.
Kaveh Akbar: Right. Delightful, not as in superficially pleasant, but as in “full of delight.” Frost said a good poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom, and I really do believe these poems epitomize that maxim about as well as any could hope to.
Justin Boening: Scrolling through these comments, I find myself looking for the thumbs-up like button. Alas… Maybe in the next software update.
Maxim?… That’s a terrible pun, Kaveh. Someone shut this guy’s account off!
Kaveh Akbar: Hahaha. I didn’t even mean to do that. I think Max is guiding my fingers and making me accidentally punny, the Patrick Swayze to my Demi Moore.
Brian S: What are your favorites? Are there any you’re going to fight over who gets to read them in Iowa City tomorrow night?
Justin Boening: ”I wondered, at one point, / if I had in fact killed myself— / if death just meant spending / all your time with your past. // The more there is, the more loss there is— / true not only of the world, but of perceiving it,” I love The End, and since I was one of the folks who organized the event, I thought it best to avoid any confrontation with the other readers who were traveling such far distances… I made sure to call dibs before anyone else got any foolish ideas.
Kaveh Akbar: Brian, re: favorites, I certainly have some, but there really isn’t a clunker in the book. How rare is that? To have every poem in a book of poetry land for you? That’s so uncommon. I find myself returning to AFTERNOON often, it was the one that spoke most directly to me in the immediate aftermath of his passing, seeing Max working through the negative space he’d leave himself, working through the great US grieving his absence. “And I am missing everything living / that won’t come with me / into this sunny afternoon.” For someone who loved the world and it’s creatures as much as max very obviously did, it’s such a shattering thing to realize that while we can still endlessly learn about the world of his poems, the world of his psychic life, he no longer gets to learn about this world, about us. I think AFTERNOON speaks to that with a devastating clarity.
Justin Boening: Kaveh loves “Afternoon” so much, he couldn’t help but embody the opening bioluminescence—he forgot his wallet earlier today.
Kaveh Akbar: Haha, it’s true. Again, probably just Max Patrick Swayze-ing my Demi Moore to prep me for this.
Brian S: Ha! Funny tho, I feel more naked if I leave the house without my phone than without my wallet these days.
”What am I missing?” I ask,
patting my chest
ONLY MY WHOLE DAMN LIFE!!!
Kaveh Akbar: I notice the phone faster, that’s for sure.
Camille D: ”Poem in Which My Shrink is a Little Boy” is fascinating to me. So tender and yet jocular. Sweet in a rub the hair on the top a child’s head a bit too hard kind of way.
Kaveh Akbar: Haha. That is so often the frequency at which the sweetness of the poems vibrates, I think. That’s a good description.
Shon L: Sorry I take a while to respond to these questions—my comment here in in regards to the question about the book as a whole. I’m reminded of the line in Max’s poem December 29th (which isn’t in this book): “God can only do good, I can do good and bad.” I think Four Reincarnations is in some ways an argument for mortality. Max writes about every part of life the large and the small and the medium, the holy and the profane. It’s a book about the capacity for love and the capacity to destroy and be destroyed. In short, about everything that is included in a human life. By writing about everything a deep love, Max blesses it and lets it bless him, and we see mortality in a different lens: The advantage of being mortal and immortal is that we mortals can experience everything. Immortals and perfect beings have an entire section of experience that is inaccessible to them. In this way Four Reincarnations makes me thankful to be alive and imperfect and vulnerable to death.
Sarah Blake: At readings I love to read the poem about Heaven being a flower, but if they give me a/v equipment, I play that amazing animated video with Max reading his work because it’s such a treat to hear him.
Shon L: Edit: the advantage of being mortal *over* being immortal
Camille D: Wow. Max was lucky to have you all as friends. What a gift to have touched so many smart workers of the word with his own wisely worked words! Isn’t that the wish that all poets have, that they might leave reach an audience who will truly and fully appreciates the poems?
Actually, Shon, I liked the idea of being mortal AND immortal. I feel, when I read this book, like Max might have been both even while he was with us on this plane.
Brian S: Do any of you know how long Max worked on this book?
Kaveh Akbar: And it goes back to what I was talking about earlier. Nothing in the world would have made max happier than knowing how his work has brought us together. Has brought so many people together. His work is such a glue in that way. Love bait.
Camille D: I second Brian’s question. I was struck by Shon’s comment that there are poems not collected in this book and wonder what criteria went into such omissions.
Justin Boening: ”Enoch has written / We are made in His image / but God may have many images. / He may want even more.” just to add a few more thoughts about The End, I think the denouement here (and to respond some to Shon’s last comment) speaks to this really compelling thread through the book. The desire (yes) to be mortal, trapped in one body, however failing, but also immortal, which to Max may mean multipliable! Like that moment in Litter when he becomes himself, all the mice, and someone everyone he’s talking to, which is potentially everyone! “I hope, Maxes, some good in you is of me.” Such is the slipperiness of pronouns
Sarah Blake: I started working with him on a draft in August 2015. It was already so amazing. And I’ve seen many of the new poems and I’m excited to see where they end up.
Camille D: Love bait! A long time ago, in Major Jackson‘s backyard, I was present when Matthew Dickman founded what he called The Love Movement. I have long adhered to the importance of The Love Movement in American poetry. And now I love that there is this new way of thinking about what work a poet and poetry might perform: A poet and poetry might be Love Bait.
Kaveh Akbar: And that’s a gorgeous answer, Shon. And a gorgeous thought, Camille, about him being on both planes concurrently. Though I do feel these to be the poems of someone deeply in love with THIS world, this very specific Goldilocks world. And to the extent I feel the book is sad at all (I don’t think that’s the dominant emotional note), I think it’s a sadness born of reticence at having to leave such a beloved world.
LOVE BAIT: THE MAX RITVO STORY
Brian S: Real quick, tell me how the Iowa City reading tomorrow night came together.
Justin Boening: It’s tough for me to say there isn’t sadness in this book. I think there’s plenty, but part of the wisdom (wisdom again) is Max’s ability to see always the joy inbuilt into sadness, the ecstasy inbuilt in suffering, humor inbuilt into anger, the impossible inbuilt into the inevitable. The tone is so mutable in this book, so plastic and flexible, which is part of what keeps it so breathtakingly alive.
The reading was inevitable. Max’s book was always going to be performed and loved all over this country (at least). Whether it would be Max in the room or Max and his body was the only question.
Brian S: Well I hope to see you all there in person tomorrow night. Thanks so much for joining us, all of you, and helping us celebrate/appreciate Max’s book and his life.
Kaveh Akbar: Absolutely, breathtakingly alive, I love that. I definitely think there’s sadness, I just don’t think that’s the dominant emotional note. I think there’s too much joy and gratitude and love, most of all, love, to ever characterize it as “a sad book.” I think of it as a book of love poems. Even those Randall poems, love notes to an enemy!
Justin Boening: Thanks so much for hosting this convo! I hope we were politely profane like Max.
Shon L: Thank you all so much for inviting me! And thank you for spreading Max!
Justin Boening: Naively wise.
Camille D: Good night, everyone!
Justin Boening: Now that Max has reincarnated in multiple, he’s spreadable like butter, among so many other beautiful worldly (and over worldly) things.
Editor’s note: I did manage to make it to that reading the next night in Iowa City, and it was unlike any reading I’ve ever been to. None of the readers were introduced, as they were there to embody Max and his work. The crowd was rapt and engaged. I was so tied into the work that I forgot that I’d wanted to take video of it to include in this interview, which is maybe for the best. Also, as I told Kaveh after the reading when everyone was about to leave, I realized that I’d forgotten my wallet, perhaps my subconscious’s way of having me relate on a new level to these poems. –Brian Spears